Escape to Switzerland via Monte Bisbino

The Sanctuary on the summit of Monte Bisbino, one of the routes favoured by refugees seeking to cross the border into Switzerland.

To honour Holocaust Memorial Day I would like this year to recount the experience of Anna Sacerdoti, born 1925, who successfully managed to avoid deportation to Hitler’s death camps by escaping over the border from Cernobbio with her family.

Smuggling’s game of cat and mouse between ‘contrabandisti’ and border guards formed a key part of our local economy up until the 1970’s. However, during the war both these players would often cooperate in helping enemies of the fascist state escape over the border to avoid deportation to Hitler’s death camps. Anna Sacerdoti, a young girl from a Jewish family,  made that escape with her family in 1943. Her account of her experience provides insight into how life changed from 1938 with the passing of the anti-Semitic Race Laws until 1943 when Mussolini’s Repubblica di Salò defined all Jews as ‘enemies of the state’ at the Congress of Verona.  

The Rifugio Bugone above Moltrasio was one of the chain of barracks for border guards set up to deter smuggling. Many guards helped refugees cross the border using their knowledge of the mountain to outsmart the Nazi soldiers or the fascist Brigate Nere. Mussolini eventually barred the border guards from operating on the mountains due to their untrustworthiness.

Anna Sacerdoti was born into a family with one elder brother, a mother who kept house and a father with a textiles shop and tailor’s studio in the Porta Venezia area of Milan.  She and her family survived the war to later become a politician, a renowned astronomer and the joint owner with her husband of Como’s largest independent bookshop in Via Mentana. She recounted her wartime experiences in an interview recorded by Como’s Istituto di Storia Contemporanea (ISC) and available in Italian online. The details in this article are taken from that interview with the ISC.

Background

Headline announcing the passing of the anti-Semitic Race Laws of 1938.

Throughout the 1930s Jewish families from Germany had emigrated to Italy in the belief that they would be safer here. The fascist government had showed its capacity for racism in its deplorable conduct of the war in Ethiopia but there had been no recent history of anti-semitism. However, possibly under pressure from Hitler or as part of the evolution of his own racist thinking, Mussolini changed this when he published the ‘Leggi Razziali’ in 1938.  This convergence of Italian fascism with German Nazism came to be codified in the ‘Patto D’Acciaio’ (Pact of Steel) Treaty of 1939, sealing the fate of the Italian economy and the sacrifice of up to 70,000 of its own citizens to murder in Nazi death camps. 

The main clauses in the Racial Laws were the following:

  • Jews could not marry ‘aryian’ Italians.
  • Jews were forbidden from employing ‘aryians’ as domestic workers.
  • No Jews could be employed in public administration, banks or any company offering public services.
  • Foreign Jews could no longer enter the country.
  • All foreign Jews had their Italian citizenship revoked if granted at any time after 1919.
  • No Jew could be employed as a lawyer or journalist.
  • No Jewish children could attend state schools unless they converted to Catholicism.
  • No books published by Jews could be used in state schools.
  • Special schools for Jewish pupils were created in which only Jewish teachers could work. Jewish teachers were banned from working in state schools.

The fascist regime fell in 1943 with the signing of an armistice with the allies on September 8th. The racial laws were revoked. All political prisoners. allied prisoners of war and Jews then in detention were freed. However, the period of freedom was short lived since it was quickly followed by the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy.  

On the Nazi’s reinstatement of Mussolini in 1943, the so-called Republic of Salò passed  Article 7 of the Congress of Verona. This article defined all Jews living in Italy as ‘enemies of the state’ and it applied equally to all residents whether they be foreign refugees or those with Italian citizenship. Enemies of the state – which also included political opponents and ex-soldiers or others avoiding military service –  risked arrest, onward deportation and death in Nazi extermination camps. Most Jews from Italy were transferred to Auschwitz where 7,680 died leaving only 1,000 able to return home. 10,000 political prisoners and between 40 to 50 thousand ex-soldiers suffered a similar fate.

The Sacerdoti Family

The district of Casnedo within Cernobbio where the Sacerdoti family moved to avoid the allied bombardment of Milan and to be close to the Swiss border if they needed to make a quick escape.

Prior to 1938, Anna’s family were living in Milan. Her father, Renato – an avowed antifascist who kept his home free of any fascist influence – ran a textiles shop importing mainly English cloth  and a tailoring studio in the Porto Venezia area. It was not a religious family and so they did not insist that Anna or her brother were not to attend the daily prayers at the start of the school day. Anna recounts how they stood up with all the other children ‘out of respect’ but didn’t have to participate. She was not aware at that time of any anti-Semitism.

Her father though had sensed the way fascism was going and the increasing likelihood of war. He took the family on the long summer holiday to Cernobbio where he also  cultivated friendships with the local smugglers and the border guards. 

Schooling

Mussolini and fascist leaders at a young person’s rally in Milan’s Arena

The start of the school year in October 1938  was heralded by Mussolini’s customary attendance of a grand gymnastic display by school children in Milan’s Arena. Anna was a skilled gymnast and was taking part in rehearsals when her teacher tearfully had to inform her and two other companions that they could no longer  take part. Anna, at twelve years old, began at this point to understand the impact of fascism. 

During that summer in Cernobbio she had been taking extra lessons in German from a Jewish Russian refugee. She needed German as a condition of entry into the Scientific Lyceum – her preferred choice for secondary schooling. But the racial laws meant she was denied access to that or any other Italian school. She and her brother enrolled into the British Institute, unimpacted by the racial laws since it was linked to the British Embassy, but they did not get on with instruction in English. From then on Anna received no formal education until she went back to complete matriculation after the war, sitting as an adult in the 5th year class in the Liceo Scientifico ‘Paolo Giovio’ in Como.

Move to Cernobbio

Anna’s father’s textile shop and studio had been seized from him and he was forced into earning money from a variety of informal jobs. In any case, with the increasing overt racism of the state and the start of the allied bombardment of Milan in 1939, he decided to move the family to safer ground. In 1940 they made a permanent move to the district of Casnedo in Cernobbio, where Renato had already established good relationships. Como and Cernobbio were spared allied bombardment and they were in easy reach of the Swiss border if ever there came the need to make a hasty escape. 

Sign in a shopfront in Milan ‘discouraging’ Jewish customers.

A still taken from Roberto Benigni’s film ‘La Vita e Bella’ in which he parodied these exclusion notices with the fantasy that on certain days it was the turn of Visigoths and spiders to be denied entry.

The next blow to the family came when they were forced to sack their household help of many years – a girl originally from Friuli called Maria. Both Maria, Anna and the rest of the family were devastated by this. Anna had grown up with Maria and thought of her as a second mother. Maria had become part of their household and it was difficult for Renato to find another family who would employ her on similar terms and conditions. For Anna, it was just another example of how everyone, not just Jews, suffered as a result of the Racial Laws.

Armistice Day, September 8th 1943

The fall of the fascist government with the arrest and imprisonment of Mussolini brought widespread relief and the freeing of all allied soldiers from prison camps. Most of these allied soldiers then did their best to reach home with many coming up to cross over the border into Switzerland.  In the meantime, those Italian soldiers in Italy were quick to divest themselves of their uniforms and return to civilian life. Anna’s father helped some of the border guards posted on Monte Bisbino by giving them civilian clothes in exchange for their military uniforms. His fine instinct for survival had calculated that these uniforms might prove useful in the future.

The initial euphoria following the fall of fascism was soon cut short when the Nazis occupied the central and northern part of the country. They made a daring raid to snatch Mussolini from captivity and then reinstated him as leader of a puppet state nicknamed the Republic of Salò. The Republic of Salò lost no time in carrying out the nazifascist policy of mass extermination. 1943 saw the first train loads of Jews leave Milan’s Central Station destined for Auschwitz. The Shoah had reached Italy. 

From December 1943 to January 1945, 23 trains left Platform 21 of Milan’s Central Station containing mainly Jews but also partisans and political dissidents with Auschitz as their direct destination. The platform is now a memorial to the Holocaust.

Crossing over to Switzerland

Switzerland’s policy towards refugees during the war was complex with access being allowed and then denied whenever the individual cantons felt they lacked the resources to manage the numbers. Most refugees were interned and none were allowed to work. Initially the one group allowed access were soldiers. Following the Nazi occupation, there were many ex-soldiers who resisted being conscripted into the Republic of Salo’s army. Some of them formed the first bands of partisan antifascists. Others sought refuge in Switzerland. At that time the Swiss Canton of Ticino was only allowing ex-military to cross over the border with Italy. Anna’s father used the uniforms he had exchanged with the Border Guards to help Anna’s brother and his companions to pose as military and so pass safely over the border at Chiasso.

Renato then had to get the rest of his family to safety ever aware of the roundups of Jews by the German army and their Italian allies, the fascist Brigate Nere. Many of the local people were doing their best to safeguard their Jewish neighbours as we have recounted in previous articles and Renato was able to call upon the help of the smugglers he had befriended in Cernobbio. 

The Sacerdoti family then made their first attempt to cross the border on Monte Bisbino with the help of the smugglers who led their party to where they had cut a hole in the border fencing. The family crossed over safely but, as they descended towards Breggia, they were intercepted by Swiss border guards who refused them further entry and forced them to return into Italy. If they had returned via the official border they would all have been immediately detained and face immediate detention and eventual deportation. However they were allowed to return to the very gap in the border fence through which they had entered and so return home.

Their second attempt was made on December 19th 1943 once Renato had made a deal with the Italian border guards manning a pedestrian crossing into Switzerland at Rongiana on a footpath from Piazza Santo Stefano, a district of Cernobbio next to the family’s home in Casnedo. The guards, part of the Guardia di Finanza, had agreed to open the gates to the family in exchange for their bicycles. This time they were not turned back by the Swiss who however did separate the family, as was their custom with refugees, by interning Anna and her mother in the local cinema and her father within the sports ground. 

The view over Switzerland from Monte Bisbino. The ridge in the foreground marks the border.

The Family Whistle

Anna’s mother soon understood that the Swiss were only going to allow those refugees who had crossed over more than twenty four hours previously to stay on. The more recent arrivals, namely Anna and her family, would be sent back into Italy. She decided that they would tell the Swiss authorities they had in fact crossed earlier from Monte Bisbino but had spent the night on the mountain since it was dark. The story would hold up only if they could get a message to Anna’s father for him to corroborate it. Anna’s mother persuaded a sympathetic guard to convey her message to the sports ground where her father was being held. The problem was how would this guard be able to identify Signor Sacerdoti from the hundreds of other detainees being held there. 

Through these years of anxiety, the family had devised a means of identifying themselves to each other as for example whenever approaching the house in Casnedo. This was by whistling a specific tune known to all of them. Anna’s mother taught the Swiss guard the tune and he duly walked around the sports ground whistling this Sacerdoti tune. On hearing it, Renato approached the guard and was passed the all-important message which ensured the family would be briefly reunited and transported together to another camp in Bellinzona.

Return to Italy

Photo by Christian Schiefer taken at Ponte Chiasso showing disarmed German soldiers waiting to cross the border into Switzerland, April 1945.

Those refugees who had successfully gained permission to stay in Switzerland were interned in separate camps for men and women during the remainder of the war. This did not stop Anna joining the Communist Party which was as clandestine in Switzerland as it was in Italy. She spent most of her time in internment except for one period when she was allowed to work as a housemaid for a wealthy Swiis-Italian family who unfortunately would lock her in her room every weekend when they left for their second home. Anna decided that internment was preferable and waited her time until she got news of the allied advance beyond the Po and the liberation of Bologna.  She made her way to Chiasso and arrived there on the 23rd April 1945 when the roads were full of German soldiers retreating from Italy. Mussolini was about to embark on his last flight out of Italy within a column of German troops making its way up the western shores of Lake Como.  

Christian Schiefer took a number of photos during the last days of the war including those of Mussolini and Clara Petacci’s corpses displayed in Piazzale Loreto, Milan. Here we see German soldiers having crossed over into Switzerland at the Chiasso border post.

This time she was initially refused entry into Italy by the authorities who had closed the borders fearing the clandestine return of  fascists seeking to disguise themselves within the flocks of returning refugees. However a border guard heard her give her name as Sacerdoti, and, thinking that she was the daughter of a family he knew, he allowed her to pass.

The army barracks – Caserma De Cristoforis – in Como. Citizens had rushed to the barracks in September 1943 to arm themselves after the initial fall of fascism. Anna went immediately to these barracks on her return to Como in 1945 to enlist in the Committee of National Liberation whose task was to guide the region in those first days of peace.

Como was in a complete state of chaos in those days leading up to the capture and execution of Mussolini. There were still some German soldiers and plenty of fascists in the area. Anna went immediately to the Caserma De Cristoforis and through her party membership she registered as a member of the CLN (Committee for National Liberation) – the organisation that had coordinated resistance and, following liberation, provided the immediate civil order and administration. Her and Italy’s war was over and she and her family had survived through a fortunate combination of far-sightedness, ingenuity, help and good fortune. 

Aftermath

Anna formed an astronomical society which has an observatory on Monte Calbiga above Lenno.

On returning to Como, Anna continued her career in local politics maintaining her commitment to socialism, antifascism and the promotion of peace and culture. She established a number of cultural associations including the astronomical society, the Gruppo Astrofili Lariani with their observatory on Monte Calbiga. In 1962, alongside her husband she opened the most important independent bookshop in Como, the Libreria Mentana, which she ran until 1987. On retiring from the bookshop Anna decided to complete the secondary education that had been so brutally denied her under Mussolini’s Racial Laws back in 1938. She sat alongside those much younger than her to complete her matriculation at the Liceo Scientifico Paolo Giovio in Como.  She was then able to enrol in the University Science Faculty to further her interest in astronomy.

The interior of the Libreria Mentana set up by Anna in 1962 and managed by her until her retirement in 1987. The shop eventually closed in 2019.

Her long and fulfilling life came to an end in August 2015. Just this one single example of her achievements in peacetime, made possible by that escape over the border in Cernobbio, goes to illustrate how much human potential was sacrificed in the criminal slaughter of the millions of victims of the Shoah. 

Further Reading

Our article Como’s ‘Viaggi della Salvezza’ – In Memory of the Holocaust describes how the Border Guards (Guardia di Finanza) based in Moltrasio helped refugees to escape across the border to safety in Switzerland.  

Our article  Heroism and Disaster in the Vallassina – Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th describes how local priests also helped refugees. 

The world of the smugglers around Como is described in Como and Contraband – A Romanticised Legacy?  Even the fascist puppet state took to smuggling in an attempt to gain some financial independence form the Nazi masters. This is described in Como’s Lake Montorfano: Commandos, Contraband and the CIA.

 

Other articles commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day are:

Como Remembers the Holocaust

Testimonies and Remembrance: Como Recalls the Shoah

About comocompanion

I am an Englishman in Como, Northern Italy - definitely both a Euro and Italophile with an interest in modern history, walks in the hills and mountains, and food and wine. I favour 'slow' tourism alongside of 'slow' food.
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